A President, an Interview, and a Tragic Anniversary

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Summary
Twenty years ago, the worst episode of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorny Karabakh occurred near the small town of Khojali, where more than 400 Azerbaijanis fleeing the town were killed by Armenian soldiers or paramilitary fighters.
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Twenty years ago this week, the worst episode of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorny Karabakh occurred near the small town of Khojali. On the bitterly cold morning of February 26, 1992, more than 400 Azerbaijanis fleeing the town were killed by Armenian soldiers or paramilitary fighters. The victims included military personnel but the great majority of them were civilians. The killings were documented in detail by journalists at the time and later by the human rights organizations Human Rights Watch and Memorial.

For Azerbaijanis, the Khojali killings have become a touchstone for their losses in the Karabakh conflict. As the symbol of a national tragedy, they are marked with even greater ceremony each year, although some of these commemorations seem inappropriate to an outsider, such as when schoolchildren are shown pictures of dead bodies.

De Waal is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, specializing primarily in the South Caucasus region comprising Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia and their breakaway territories as well as the wider Black Sea region.
Thomas de Waal
Senior Associate
Russia and Eurasia Program
More from this author...
Needless to say, for the Armenian side, this is a difficult topic. They suffered their own losses at the hands of Azerbaijanis during the conflict. Simultaneously with the killings at Khojali, (a town Armenians called Khojalu) Azerbaijani rockets were falling on the town of Stepanakert killing Armenian civilians. But, keen to minimize their own acts of aggression, many Armenians have sought to deny that their soldiers killed civilians that day.

I have been personally caught up in the Khojali story. In December 2000, while researching my book on the Karabakh conflict, Black Garden, I interviewed Serzh Sarkisian, the man who is now president of Armenia and was then Armenia’s minister of defense. When I asked him about Khojali, he said that “a lot was exaggerated” but he did not deny that Armenians had killed Azerbaijani civilians. He told me: “Before Khojalu, the Azerbaijanis thought that they were joking with us, they thought that the Armenians were people who could not raise their hand against the civilian population. We needed to put a stop to all that. And that’s what happened. And we should also take into account that amongst those boys were people who had fled from [the anti-Armenian pogroms in] Baku and Sumgait.”

Over the years, this passage has been quoted many times. Some Armenians have suggested that the interview never happened, while Azerbaijanis have ignored my admonition to treat the book as a whole and not to quote from it selectively.

Every year I am also asked to give interviews about Khojali and I refuse. It feels wrong to give an “analysis” of a massacre and I do not want to give short answers without supporting context that can be used in the propaganda efforts of one side in the conflict or the other.

This is why we have transcribed the Russian-language interview with Sarkisian and are now publishing it. This confirms that the then defense minister did indeed say what I quote him to have said, while putting it in the context of a long exposition of his views on the Karabakh question.

While researching my book, I did around 120 interviews with people who had experience with the Karabakh conflict. Listening back to Serzh Sarkisian, I hear an extremely determined and passionate voice. It is no surprise to me that he rose to be the president of Armenia.

The interview contains many other fascinating insights and information, which will be of interest to those who follow this complex conflict. The current Armenian president recalls how he had many Azerbaijani friends in Nagorny Karabakh but believed that conflict with Azerbaijan became inevitable; he talks of his good relationship with Azerbaijani officials, Safar Abiev and Ramil Usubov; he relates that he talked twice over the radio during the war to notorious Chechen commander Shamil Basayev, who was fighting on the Azerbaijani side; he denies that Russia gave vital military help to Armenia, saying that Azerbaijan received much more Russian weaponry than the Armenians did; he gives his version of how the Armenians won a military victory; he gives his version of how and why he and his comrades disagreed with then-Armenian president Levon Ter-Petrosian in 1998, forcing him to resign; he recalls how he lost friends and his eighteen-year-old nephew during the conflict.

I hope that the publication of this interview will put doubts to rest about what was said about Khojali. It also puts Serzh Sarkisian’s words in their full context. Readers of this interview can make their own considered judgments. 
 

End of document

About the Russia and Eurasia Program

The Carnegie Russia and Eurasia Program has, since the end of the Cold War, led the field of Eurasian security, including strategic nuclear weapons and nonproliferation, development, economic and social issues, governance, and the rule of law.

 

Comments (4)

 
 
  • Gohar
    1 Recommend
     
    Mr. Thomas de Vaal if you want to learn the whole true about Khojaly please find a minute and have a look at this web page. I am sure it will help you not to make mistakes. http://xocali.net/
     
     
    Reply to this post

     
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  • Fatih
    A massacre is a massacre, whatever this passionate and determined baby-killer say.
     
     
    Reply to this post

     
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  • Arman
    2 Recommends
     
    Dear Mr. de Waal,

    It is nice to see you trying to understand the roots for noowadays violence. I haven't read your book, and, if you haven't dealt with it, I would suggest you to start the story of modern phase of conflict from 1988, when in response to peasceful demonstrations in Stepanakert and Yerevan, Azeris started mass pogroms, killings and deportations of Armenians in Sumgait 1988 and Baku 1990. I believe the foundtion for nowadays Safarovs and Alievs was laid back then, when organizers and immediate acomplishers of those horrible crimes remained unpunished. I am ready for discussions and bringing supporting facts backing my claims.
    Regards,
     
     
    Reply to this post

     
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  • Edward
    1 Recommend
     
    De Waal writes, "[T]he worst episode of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorny Karabakh occurred near the small town of Khojali," but wants us to think of him as a neutral observer. How does one write something like that, knowing that hundreds of Armenians were killed in massacres BEFORE the war even started in 1988 and AWAY from any armed conflict. Armenians were hunted down in their homes and killed in Sumgait, Kirovabad, and the capital Baku. On top of that De Waal does not even mention the THOUSANDS (not hundreds) of Armenian civilians, who were ethnically cleansed and brutalized with the help of Soviets during "Operation Ring." These could easily be characterized as the "worst episodes" in the war, but it seems so silly to do. Armenians and Azerbaijani civilians were brutalized and killed and the fact De Waal subtly implies that Armenians are more to blame in a war that Azerbaijan started reveals a very troubling bias.
     
     
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Source http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/02/24/president-interview-and-tragic-anniversary/9vpa

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